The Language of Technical Communication book has been released

The Language of Technical Communication book is a collaborative effort with fifty-two contributors defining the terms that form the core of technical communication as it is practiced today. Cherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt was one of the contributors.

Each contributed term has a concise definition, an importance statement, and an essay that describes why technical communicators need to know that term.

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Microsoft launches its new documentation site, and it’s very good

Microsoft has announced the preview release of its documentation service, https://docs.microsoft.com, which currently provides content for its Enterprise Mobility products.

“We interviewed and surveyed hundreds of developers and IT Pros and sifted through your website feedback over the years on UserVoice. It was clear we needed to make a change and create a modern web experience for content…For years customers have told us to go beyond walls of text with feature-level content and help them implement solutions to their business problems.” (source)

The key features are:

  • Improved readability
    • “To improve content readability, we changed the site to have a set content width.”
    • “We’ve also increased the font size for the left navigation and the text itself.”
  • Including an estimated reading time
  • Adding a publication date
  • Improved navigation
    • It is now based around sections on evaluating, getting started, planning, deploying, managing and troubleshooting
  • Shortened article length per page
  • Responsive Web Design
  • Community contributions
    • “Every article has an Edit button that takes you to the source Markdown file in GitHub, where you can easily submit a pull request to fix or improve content.”
  • Feedback mechanisms
    • To provide comments and annotations on all of the articles
  • Friendly URLs
  • Website theming
    • You can change between a light and dark theme

Wow – this matches closely with the topics we cover in our Advanced technical writing & new trends in technical communication training course, where we look at the changes made by other organisations.

Although it doesn’t mention it in its announcement, Microsoft has also made changes to the style of its topic headings and content. There’s frequent use of words and phrases such as “protect”, “discover” and “understand and explore”.

We’ve yet to look at the site in detail, but initial impressions are very positive.

What do you think?

The Internet of Things – creating a user guide for a fridge door

The Internet of Things (IoT) is, according to Wikipedia, the network of physical objects – devices, vehicles, buildings and other items – embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data. The popular example is the concept of a smart fridge that could warn you when it was out of milk.

Yesterday, we spotted a tweet mentioning SeeNote, a digital version of the sticky notes people use around the house and office.

This got us wondering if it were possible to create a digital user guide that could be:

  • Stuck on the wall (or the fridge door)
  • Have a screen that was always on
  • Automatically update itself
  • Notify you when there was new information
  • Run without mains power for approximately a month between charges.

The SeeNote is a little too small for that purpose, so could another e-ink device, such as an ebook reader, be configured to work in this way?

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MadWorld 2016 Conference Review – Day One

Last week, I spoke at, and attended, Madworld 2016, the conference hosted by MadCap Software for its users. It’s the most rewarding and enjoyable of all the conferences on technical communication that I attend. Here is a summary of what I saw and heard on the first day.

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Perfecting collaborative authoring for online Help

Yesterday, I wrote:

“There are some activities that seem like they always could be improved. One is creating an authoring environment where professional technical communicators and other staff can work together.”

Writing online Help is different from writing some other types of content, in that it involves topic-based authoring. Content is stored in modular, re-usable and flexible chunks of information. By moving away from a page-centric, document model, you’re able to organise and present published information in many different ways. However, it’s a different approach to what many non-professional Technical Authors are used to. Unfamiliarity with this content model, as well as the tools, can make collaboration difficult.

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The return of Clippy?

Are we seeing the the spiritual child of Clippy emerge? Truth Labs’s Stelios Constantinides has written an article on his experiments with conversational UIs.

Conversational user interfaces (CUIs) are a spoken or written way of interacting with a device. CUIs aren’t completely new, but they’re becoming smarter, more natural, and — therefore — more useful.

Here’s where CUIs come in: since users already spend so much time in apps like Slack, Facebook Messenger, and even plain-old email, why not integrate your app inside these platforms?

Microsoft ClippyConstantinides  looks at the design process of creating something that doesn’t come across as a robot, and isn’t as annoying as Microsoft Clippy.

This links in with Ann Rockley’s concept of Intelligent Content: “Content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.”

For conversational user interfaces to work well, they need to be automatically discoverable, adaptable and semantically categorized. Microsoft Clippy wasn’t, which is one of the reasons why it failed in its purpose.

It’s still unclear whether this will lead to content being seen as code, or stored in a semantically rich format and inside a content management system. Whichever way, it’s important to recognize that the conversational language is different from written language. We speak differently from the way we write, and this is reflected in how we use messaging apps and authoring tools. Conversations are typically a one-to-one form of communication.

With Siri, Google Voice and Cortana closed off to most developers, we’re likely to see conversational user interfaces developed as alternatives to these applications.

One school of thought is users will move away from searching using sentences, and, instead,  learn to type commands (they will write command line instructions). In other words, they will begin to think and type more like programmers. This is illustrated in the image below.

Slack command line

I wonder if this might be a bit optimistic. There are many people find Twitter too difficult to use, and I suspect it would take them a long time to adapt to this approach.


This topic is something we cover (albeit briefly) in our Advanced technical writing & new trends in technical communication training course (the next one of which is on the 22nd of March).

See also:

(With thanks to Simon Bostock)

What do you think? Share your thoughts using the comment box below.

API documentation design patterns

One of the current developments in technical communication is the development of a common way to present API documentation. At present, there are a number of different design patterns that organisations are using, but, as with many things, there seems to be a desire to establish a de facto standard.

One part of this has been to establish the topics that should be covered in an API guide. Typically, this includes a conceptual overview, how to obtain authorisation keys, getting started and the important reference information of the endpoints, parameters code samples and error codes. The reference information includes having code samples that developers can copy and paste (and tweak to their situation). This often means different samples for each development environment.

The second part has been the the information design aspects of how the content should be presented. The Stripe API is one that probably has been copied the most. This organises the content into columns, with the code samples on the right side of the screen.

Last week, Tom Johnson tweeted about a new design pattern used by Lucybot:

This offers a console, accessible as a tab.

Lucybot example API Console2

This is quite an appealing approach because it could be replicated across a number of authoring tools.

The UK’s Government Digital Service is looking to establish a common standard for API documentation on the Gov.uk website, and this could have quite an influence on other sites looking for best practice to copy.

Which design patterns have you seen and liked? Share your thoughts using the comment box below.

Summary of the findings from our 2016 technical communications survey

We asked Technical Authors to complete a survey into the issues and challenges they face in 2016 and beyond. There were four main themes that stood out:

  1. Issues around working in an Agile environment.
  2. A need to develop skills in creating training screencasts. This included how to use tools, structuring and presenting content, and the ideal length of each video.
  3. Improving the status of Technical Authors and the Technical Publications department in the organisation. This topic has come up in previous surveys.
  4. Developing skills in using DITA.

We’ve looked at Agile recently, and we’ll revisit the other topics in the upcoming months.

Thanks to everyone who took part in the survey.